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Perseverance pays off for America
A drenched swarm of yellow-clad players crowded around Club América captain Aquivaldo Mosquera as he bounded off the stage and prepared to lift the club's first league title since the 2005 Clausura.
AROUND THE WORLD ...
When Mosquera pushed this hard-earned and historic championship into the rainy night to the delight of his teammates and the 100,000 or so onlookers at Estadio Azteca, he released eight years of hurt and prompted one incredulous question.
How exactly did América manage to pull off this miracle?
By just about every reasonable metric, América should not have devised a way to force extra time with two late goals (including the equalizer from goalkeeper Moisés Muñoz), survive the additional half an hour with 10 men after the 2-1 victory in normal time drew the sides level over the two legs, or triumph on penalty kicks.
Their ability to overcome staggering odds to secure a record 11th title – the same number as their hated rivals from Guadalajara – stemmed from a deep belief in themselves and Cruz Azul's inability to finish off the game properly when it had the chance to do so.
And the visitors rejected plenty of invitations to secure their ninth title. América handed them a numerical advantage (Jesús Molína clattered into Pablo Barrera from behind to halt a counter and procure a red card after 14 minutes) and a tangible foothold in the game (Teófilo Gutiérrez's poorly defended and well-taken opener six minutes later). The home side even facilitated several other chances on the break only for Cruz Azul to spurn them or watch man-of-the-match Muñoz thwart them.
Some of the blame will inevitably fall on the shoulders of Vázquez (his conservative deportment from the outset and his second-half substitutions invited América forward and left his players to contest extra time without Barrera or Gutiérrez on the field) and his players for freezing up in a final yet again (five straight defeats with the league title on the line since the last success in 1997 Invierno), but this story ultimately isn't about what Cruz Azul did not do. It is about what América did.
This talent-laden side persevered on a night when it fell well short of its best. Miguel Herrera chopped and changed in a bid to spark his players to life even under adverse circumstances, but they lacked the incisiveness and the quality to carve open their opponents.
Instead of dropping their heads and succumbing to a seemingly inevitable fate, they pushed and pushed until they somehow barged the door down. Mosquera atoned for his shoddy defending on Gutiérrez's opener a minute before full time when he nodded a Christian Bermúdez cross to throw his side a lifeline. Everyone eventually pushed into the Cruz Azul penalty area during three frantic minutes of stoppage time until an unlikely hero popped up with the equalizer.
Muñoz more than satisfied his obligations on the night with his work between the sticks, but his intervention during the last meaningful sequence of regular time sealed his place in América forklore. The goalkeeper showed the deftness of Christian Benítez himself when he hurled himself at a corner kick and sent his diving header toward goal. Alejandro Castro deflected the effort past Jesus Corona en route to incite wild celebrations and send the match to extra time.
Both teams showed the emotional toll of the unexpected ending and the physical weight of a taxing Clausura campaign during the additional period, though Benítez probably should have capped the fairytale ending by polishing off a one-versus-one opportunity shortly before the interval. Corona saved once more to prolong Cruz Azul's misery and turn the match toward the ending it deserved.
Muñoz dispelled most of the doubt about how the spot kicks would unfold by saving Javier Orozco's opener to set the tone. Castro then slipped on the slick surface as he approached Cruz Azul's second attempt to pave the way for América to march through the gauntlet without a hitch. Miguel Layún – exposed by Christian Giménez for the only goal at Estadio Azul on Thursday night – sparked the raucous celebrations when he coolly completed América's perfect quartet of penalties to leave Las Aguilas atop Mexico for the first time in nearly a decade.
And they will rejoice in their restored supremacy for quite some time to come. This is the sort of victory worth admiring and appreciating, even for a club that demands success on a yearly basis. It completed the transformation from disparate collection of talented players to dogged unit under Herrera (a first-time winner after two title defeats with Monterrey) and revealed money can buy character and grit as well as skill.
Perhaps most of all, this thrilling final showed that even the biggest of clubs can conjure up a little magic and overcome adversity every once in a while. On this occasion, this unanticipated revival act produced a night no one at Estadio Azteca will ever forget or quite understand.
Kyle McCarthy writes about the beautiful game for FOX Soccer, the Boston Herald and several other publications. Follow him on Twitter @kylejmccarthy.